The rock formation on Mars shows what looks like the face of an elephant. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)
Rock formation on Mars shows what looks like the head of an elephant (Nasa/JPL/University of Arizona)

A Nasa satellite appears to have photographed the first elephant in space or, at least, a rock formation formed by lava on Mars that looks like one.

The photo, taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on Nasa's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, beamed back to Earth the outlined image of an elephant's face on the surface of the red planet.

The HiRISE project has sent back more than 22,000 images from Mars since it was launched in 2005. The image of an elephant's face was taken in a region of Mars called the Elysium Planitia which is the youngest youngest flood-lava province on the planet.

University of Arizona planetary geologist Alfred McEwen, who runs the project, said: "Most lava floods on Earth are emplaced over years to decades and this is probably true for much of the lava on Mars as well.

"An elephant can walk away from the slowly advancing flow front. However, there is also evidence for much more rapidly flowing lava on Mars, a true flood of lava. In this instance, maybe this elephant couldn't run away fast enough."

This latest image is a good example of what is called pareidolia, where we see things - such as animals - that are not really there, as the brain attempts to make sense of an unfamiliar setting.